If the Knicks plan to make a serious and upward move in the Eastern Conference standings, Friday night’s game began the favorable stretch for them to do so.
And their furious comeback in a 133-129 overtime victory over the Grizzlies at the Garden might just serve as the springboard.
Leading scorers Julius Randle and RJ Barrett were mostly invisible for three quarters, but the duo combined for 23 points in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Knicks overcame a late 13-point hole. Their frantic comeback enabled the Knicks to win the first of an 11-game stretch in which they will play nine times in front of their home fans.
Randle didn’t manage his first field goal until 3:16 remained in the third quarter, but he finished with 15 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for his fifth triple-double of the season.
Barrett managed just five points through three quarters, but he netted 15 the rest of the way, including a game-tying drive late in regulation and a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:15 remaining in overtime.
Alec Burks scored nine of his 19 points in the extra session, Immanuel Quickley finished with 20 points and Derrick Rose added 19 points off the bench for the Knicks (26-27), who had lost five of their previous six games to fall to the eighth playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Ja Morant finished with 26 points and six assists while Jonas Valanciunas netted 20 points with 14 rebounds for the Grizzlies (26-24).
With the top six teams in each conference automatically qualifying for postseason play — and the seventh- through 10th-place finishers subjected to play-in scenarios — the Knicks face another important matchup at home against the No. 11 Raptors on Sunday.
“You’ve got to win games. One game at a time and take care of business and the rest will settle itself,” Barrett said before the game.
“I think you’re heading down the stretch, the important thing — you try to build that habit from the start of the season,” coach Tom Thibodeau added. “And that’s the trap that you fall into — you start looking ahead like that. I think every team right now is facing the challenge of looking at a condensed schedule. So how do you maximize that time?
“Being ready to play and understanding what goes into each and every game is critical at this point in the season.”
Barrett didn’t mince words when asked if he keeps tabs on the two players taken ahead of him in the draft — former college teammate Zion Williamson of the Pelicans and Morant of the Grizzlies.
“My game speaks for itself,” Barrett said. “I mean, you can look at our numbers, you can look at our team’s success. It doesn’t really matter as long as I keep getting better as a player, I’ll be happy.”
While Barrett and Randle combined for just six points through two quarters, Rose finished the first half with 13 in 16 minutes off the bench to help keep the Knicks within 60-51 at intermission.
Elfrid Payton returned from early foul trouble and netted five straight points to cut the deficit to four points 3:38 into the third quarter.
Valanciunas and Morant combined for 10 points in a 16-7 run to push Memphis’ advantage back to 13 (84-71) midway through the third quarter.
But the Knicks’ second unit fronted another comeback bid with an Obi Toppin lob dunk and a Quickley 3-pointer drawing them back within seven entering the final period. Toppin (eight points) added another put-back slam early in the fourth.
Randle’s three-point play drew the Knicks within 112-109 with 61 seconds left in regulation before Barrett tied it with three free throws with 37 ticks left on the clock.
One free throw apiece by Morant and Valanciunas put Memphis up by two late, but Barrett drove the left side and banked in a short runner for the tie with 8.8 seconds left to force overtime.